Marriage Story, the latest critically acclaimed Hollywood offering on family life, garnered six Oscar nominations this week, one sign of its popularity in the industry. But as good as it is to watch in purely dramatic terms, the movie ends up painting a bleak, dispiriting, and unrepresentative portrait of marriage today, not only in the nation at large but even in Hollywood. The movie tells the story of a marriage between a New York director, the Adam Driver character, and a Los Angeles actress, the Scarlett Johansson character, unraveling over work–family tensions—Should we live in New York or LA? Does his career come first or does hers—and the kind of minor emotional drama that plays out in most marriages, with a young son caught up in the emotional and practical turmoil that unfolds as they end up in divorce court. So, basically, what we have here is a movie about a marriage coming apart for no good reason, literally in (West) Hollywood.
The movie is but the latest offering in a long line of movies and shows—from The Graduate to Friends to Single Parents—from an industry that mostly shies away from depicting stably married families in a positive light, and spotlights, more often than not, the rise of diverse families that depart from the traditional intact-family model. Hollywood’s offerings are also emblematic of the larger cultural and legal role that California has played in pioneering and amplifying particular cultural values—e.g., from individual fulfillment to “if-it-feels-good-do-it-ism” to easy divorce—that have undercut stable marriage across the nation. After all, no-fault divorce was invented by California, signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan just over 50 years ago, before being exported across the United States, to the detriment of kids across America.
The irony in all this, though, is that our new research indicates that the actual neighborhood that stands at the center of historic Hollywood, the Whitley Heights neighborhood just between the Hollywood sign and the Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars are held, has virtually no single parents amid the hundreds of families who make their home there. And it turns out that most of the best neighborhoods in the hills or along the beaches of Southern California—from Pacific Palisades to Rancho Palos Verdes to Beverly Hills—are dominated by two-parent families. These neighborhoods have fewer than 20 percent of children living in single-parent families, which makes them among the most stable in the state.
They are also consistent with another major theme in our report: When it comes to family, California elites tend to “talk left” but “live right.” Of Californians ages 18 to 50, we find that college-educated Californians stand out for their more progressive views on family issues. The vast majority of Californians (85 percent) with a college or graduate degree agree that family diversity, “where kids grow up in different kinds of families today,” should be publicly celebrated, compared with 69 percent of Californians without a college education. But a clear majority of college-educated Californians, 68 percent, report that it is personally important to them to have their own kids in marriage, and 80 percent of them who are parents are in intact marriages, compared with just 60 percent of their peers in the state who don’t have a college degree. So, California elites pair progressive family values with traditional family living—including steering clear of divorce court.
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Photo credit: Netflix